Atomic essay #22 – how I do research: part 5 (anatomy of an evergreen)

There are no hard and fast rules for this. I have rules of thumb, but I don’t always obey them.

Atomic essay #22 – how I do research: part 5 (anatomy of an evergreen)

In the last post, I outlined what an Evergreen Note is. In this post, I’m going to discuss how I go about composing them and what I put in them.

How do I know what goes into the Evergreen Note?

There are no hard and fast rules for this. I have rules of thumb, but I don’t always obey them. As a reminder, here they are:

  • Are about ideas, not individual texts (because this is why we have Literature Notes)
  • Are atomic – short, and about one idea. I'm not always very good at sticking to this.
  • Are written in one's own words in continuous prose
  • Reference source material
  • Are revisited and refined over time.
  • Are linked to other Evergreen Notes

I write them whenever I feel like I’ve got an idea that’s taking shape. In a Zettelkasten, the nomenclature is confusing – they’re called Permanent Notes, which for me seems to imply that once made they can never change. Not so; in fact, it is the opposite, and this is why I like the term Evergreen. The note is permanent, but its content can and will change over time. I might learn something new that changes my perspective; I might conversely have my position reinforced by fresh evidence. Such is thinking, and therefore such is note-making, too.

For this reason, some like the term ‘Digital Garden’; some even go so far as to publish these gardens publically on the web. One can click through and watch the thoughts link. That’s what we’re going for with Evergreen Notes. We want to:

  • Refine them over time
  • Connect them to other notes

I used to worry, when I was concerned with creating a proper Zettelkasten, about following the rules. I would ask myself questions like this:

  • Can I make more than one Evergreen from a Literature Note?
  • Can Evergreens only be inspired by things I’ve read?
  • Am I doing it right?

These questions all miss the point. The point is the thinking. This whole system is just a way for me to organise thoughts in a way that – I think – works for me. So, when I feel like I’m touching on a ‘new’ idea (i.e. one I don’t have an extant note for yet) I start to think about creating an Evergreen Note.

The circumstances in which they’re created can vary. I’m currently researching for an exam, so I have a specific goal in mind. You might recall that I start off with ‘lines of enquiry’, a mixture of statements of belief (which I want to see challenged and supported when I’m reading) and questions I want answers to. Each time I read something, I’ll make a note next to the statement / question of anything I’ve just read that fits. When I accumulate enough insight, I’ll convert it all into an Evergreen Note.

Sometimes, though, I’ll just have an idea. I won’t be quite sure where I got it from, but it grips me somehow. So I’ll make an Evergreen Note. I won’t necessarily add much to it, if anything. Notes that are just titles I tag ‘seedling’ rather than Evergreen, to remind me that they need work; I also use ‘budding’ if the note is in progress. I’ve got plenty of notes that are just titles. It might be that I never complete them. It doesn’t matter: only the thinking does.

Let’s now look at what an Evergreen looks like, followed by an explanation of each component.

The title

I favour declarative sentences for titles. I think of the title as the first test. If I can’t express my idea in a single declarative sentence, I might not be ready to write the Evergreen. The title also makes it really easy to see what the note is about, without having to go into it. Finally, writing a little like this helps me link to other notes, which I’ll explain shortly.

The tags

Depending on what software you use, tags might work differently (you might use folders, for example). I like tags because I don’t need to worry about where I’ve ‘put’ something; I just need to search for the tag. Tags are a great way to create multiple associations, something that folders don’t let you do, because one can only place an item in one folder at a time. The first line contains the ‘evergreen’ tag (or ‘seedling’ / ‘budding’) and the project, if applicable. The second line of tags are just keywords; again, this is useful if I want to find all my notes on ‘modelling’, for example.

The main body

I try to keep things short, succinct, and in my own words. If I find myself straying to a new topic that’s related, I create a link to a new note. This is where something like Logseq comes in handy, because I can make new notes simply by enclosing a phrase in [[]]. Clicking it takes me to that new note; I can even open that new note in the sidebar, so I can work on two notes simultaneously.

I must stress here that it doesn’t matter if things don’t quite work out the first time. The trick is to get the thoughts down, and get into the habit of revisiting notes, which will happen the more notes you’ll write.

This is the tricky part. Each note is linked to several other notes. I embed my notes within the syntax of a sentence, but you don’t have to; you could just pop all links at the bottom. I like it my way because it encourages me to have a ‘conversation’ with my notes.

I used to stress about links. Now I just let them happen. I’ve found it tends to happen naturally. It can be as easy as having a note open and clicking a tag to see what other notes there are on the topic. If something is pertinent, link it in! The more you revisit, the more you’ll refine, and the more links you’ll make.

The references

Most of the time, I put links to any Literature Notes that have inspired the Evergreen. As I refine the Evergreen, I might find that the ideas exist in multiple sources, so I’ll add them in, too. But it might be that the source was something someone wrote on Twitter, a conversation I had with a colleague, or maybe I can’t remember. That’s fine. I just do my best here.

Final thoughts

I hope I’ve made this process relatively clear. It has been rather helpful for me to write my process down from start to finish, because I’ve been able to think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Thinking in public, for me, is useful, because it makes one more obviously accountable for one’s ideas.

I’m always very interested to see how others organise themselves. I write this from the perspective of someone who has struggled – really struggled – with organisation; I still do, in fact. My looking into systems such as these came as the result of years of frustration at missed deadline, forgotten ideas, procrastination, fear and all other manner of horrible things. For all I know, this system might not actually help me in the long-term. I can only account with honesty for how it has worked up until now